What it's like to be a Travel Agent during COVID-19
Selling travel was a dream job for me when I was finishing school, because wandering the world is a passion of mine and I get immense excitement (and jealousy) when someone tells me of their holidays plans. It was never a particularly breezy job, but the people that I work with are amazing and the company I work for is big enough that from a simple retail agent role, a million pathways form to other careers in the travel industry. Plus the benefits are truly like no other career (hello, all-inclusive cruises, luxury African safaris and charter flights to Europe for the weekend? Yes please!) or at least they were, until COVID.
I have worked at Flight Centre for 6 years in between living overseas, and will continue to do so through this pandemic, but I have to admit ... it’s been hard. Harder than I ever anticipated.
I no longer feel the joy of planning adventurous holidays. In fact, booking a flight gives me anxiety because of all the uncertainty and the disappointment of sudden (often last minute) cancellations. I don’t talk about sailing in Greece, visiting Parisian museums, taking selfies in front of the Trevi Fountain or walking through the gates of Disneyland. I don't look at gorgeous hotel rooms for honeymooners or river cruise suites for retirees who’ve saved their entire careers for one epic holiday.
Instead, I feel more and more like a debt collector, selling flights that may or may not go ahead.
I’m going to tell you what a typical day in the life of a travel agent during COVID-19 sounds like.
I get into the office, open up my Gmail and find half a dozen emails from customers demanding their refunds (or at least an update on their refund). It has been two months since they cancelled and they haven't seen any money in their account, and Flight Centre is 'stealing' from them.
Firstly, let me clarify something for the people out there who may not know or don't seem to understand how the process works. When a customer books a flight with us, we don't keep the funds until they are due to fly. We pay that airline on the day, or we will not receive a ticket. Therefore, the funds are not 'sitting in an interest account' owned by Flight Centre. The funds are with the airline.
In normal circumstances (ie. pre-COVID) the time it takes to a) apply for a refund from an airline, b) have that refund approved by the airline, and c) receive the funds back into our accounts is minimum 12 weeks. That was the advice we were giving our customers in March at the beginning of the pandemic, when cancellations began. Due to the sheer volume of refunds being processed by these ticketing teams, 12 weeks is pushing it. 16 weeks has become a more realistic time frame. Whilst that might seem completely ridiculous, it is actually rather reasonable. Here’s why.
The systems put into place to sell tickets weren't designed to un-sell them. And I'm not talking about just airlines. I'm talking about tour companies. Car hire companies. Insurance companies. Cruise lines. Transfer companies. Every wholesaler that books travel has had to undo everything they have booked in the last 18 months. And many of these companies (ours included) are working with barely a quarter of the staffing numbers they usually have.
If hundreds of customers returned to Subway with the sandwiches they bought, all at the one time, and asked the staff there to unpack the sandwich they just made and refund them the money, perfectly and to the cent, without warning and under immense amounts of pressure, it wouldn’t take minutes. It also probably wouldn’t be perfect, because the staff might be going through just as much financial hardship and stress behind the scenes as that of their customers. These things are going to take time.
So. I reply to my customers reminding them that it has only been 8 weeks since their refund was submitted, and that when I receive the funds, I will contact them – because despite popular opinion, it is completely incorrect that we are personally keeping our customer's money in an account on purpose. There is no benefit of that for us, in fact we all want to give customer's their refund as soon as we have it, not only to make their life easier, but to close the file and get on with our list of a hundred things to do. There's nothing more frustrating for us in this environment than to drag on a refund. Except, perhaps, the consistent change in border closures. Which brings me to the next exciting part of my day.
We all read the news. We all get the same alerts from the premiers of state and the prime minister himself. So when a new border closes, we have to contact all of the customers that booked a flight recently for whatever reason – a funeral, a medical appointment, a connecting flight to return to their country overseas – and tell them that their flight has been cancelled, or they can’t go via that particular city anymore, or they’re not allowed to go altogether. And then we must apply for a refund or credit. Amidst all this extra tiresome and frankly heartbreaking work, the phone rings incessantly with the same questions:
- When will I be allowed to go overseas?
- Can I go to Bali for a holiday?
- Do I have to quarantine if I go to X from Y?
- I booked a flight but I don’t have a border pass, can I still go?
Some of these might seem like valid questions, and yes the border restrictions are difficult to understand, but we don’t have top-secret information from the government about borders! We are reading from Google, exactly as everyone else. Answering a question that can be asked online is one of the reasons the refunds process (on our end) is taking so goddamn long. Please, for the love of God, if you don’t have a valid reason to travel, don’t. As a travel agent, that is really painful to say, but if we all follow the rules and stay home, the spread will cease. And then we can travel again, stress-free.
Other emails I get are more cancelled flights, messages from airlines and hotels that refuse to provide refunds, pleas for help from customers still stuck overseas, more questions about border restrictions, oh and another updated airline refund/credit policy that has changed again for the thousandth time.
Travel is a luxury. I understand paying for a product that cannot be used, but anyone who books a holiday must understand that holidays aren’t essential. Therefore budgeting them into your life means you must account for that money being spent on something that will be but a memory when it is over. To complain that a travel company is robbing you of your money or the cause of devastation to your family is a first world problem. Because let’s face it … if you have the money to book a holiday, you should have the money to get you through a pandemic. A refund will help, of course, but it is money you intended to spend in the first place.
Since this pandemic began, Flight Centre as a brand has refunded over 73,000 customers, and $347 million dollars’ worth of travel. To get us through this pandemic, our upper management team made the difficult decision to stand down 70% of the work force, close half of our leisure stores, cut down every possible expense to the business, take out gargantuan loans from the bank ($700 million dollars, thereabouts) and began handing out redundancy packages. As an added kick in the gut, Flight Centre was also dragged through the mud for continuing to charge our standard $300 cancellation fee at the beginning of the pandemic, which has since then adjusted to $0 fees. Meaning any money from a holiday paid to Flight Centre that customer’s do not get back is a penalty from the supplier (ie. a tour company’s fee), not Flight Centre.
As I said, my job is hard. It’s draining. It certainly isn’t the energetic, fun-filled, incentivized job it used to be. I have to deliver bad news to customers that are my own valued clients and those who don’t have a travel agent anymore (because theirs was stood down) that by no fault of mine, I cannot give them their money back IN FULL on the spot. I have to remember a hundred complicated airline, cruise line and tour company policies for rebooking and refunds, only to have them change again in a week. I have to tell people they can’t go on their first holiday in a decade, they can’t visit their grandmother for her 80th birthday, they can’t see their family in another country that they haven’t seen in years. I have to tell people that there are no flights and I cannot. get them. home.
I am grateful I still have a job. But to the people who think that Flight Centre is taking too long to refund or holding their money, I ask you - before you pick up the phone and rattle off a list of complaints and what you’re entitled to and that you’re taking everyone to court for this - to please remember that we, your dedicated travel agents, are not to blame. We are stressed, exhausted, miserable and trying our absolute best to get through the week. Our wages have been reduced. We have taken on triple the work we normally handle. We do not enjoy the job the way we used to. And worst of all: we cannot control this.
This situation is bigger than all of us, it has turned the world upside down, and when all of this is over and we rise up again to book your dream trip, we’ll all be a little broken. So the next time you feel a surge of anger that it’s taken three to four months to get your money back, put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Be kind. Be considerate. Be patient.
We are here for you. And we will be up in the air again by your side when this is all over.